Michael R. Roskam’s Racer and the Jailbird is a kind of contemporary Shakespearean romantic tragedy, with the Flemish as the Montagues and the wealthy French as the Capulets. Romeo and Juliet tales of star-crossed lovers from different worlds are timeless, for sure, but this one, about a rich young woman who drives race cars and inexplicably falls in love with a bank robber with a heart of gold, never reveals its why now? or raison d’être. The different worlds here lack any context — why are gangsters specifically Flemish, and why is that brought up so often? But what’s even more bothersome is that it all seems constructed to lead up not to catharsis, but to, of all things, one deeply confusing metaphor about a dog.
Let’s start with the basics. Matthias Schoenaerts plays Gigi, a Flemish gangster who was driven to crime by a poor upbringing and churlish friends who goad him into taking on bigger and bigger risks. He meets young Bibi (Adele Exarchopoulos) after she emerges from a race car, takes off her helmet and shakes out her hair like some motorsport angel of light. Gigi asks Bibi for a date in exactly two weeks. And Bibi asks that Gigi not bring her flowers, signifying that she’s a “cool girl” who can hang, doesn’t like frivolous things, can drive cars real fast and take shots and definitely won’t nag when Gigi disappears for a week on a bank job or when his friends tell her the horrifying story about how he exploded a parrot’s brains when he was a kid. What woman is desperate enough to stick around after that? Bibi is in for a treat if she’s attracted to misery, because not a single thing that happens after this first date could ever be considered the least bit happy. This is melodrama, after all, but borderline boring melodrama, painting over scenes of potentially high tension with blasé realism.
Still, Schoenaerts and Exarchopoulos exhibit the kind of empathetic, in-sync performances that legitimize on-screen romances, almost selling why Bibi would throw her life away to be with a man who incessantly lies to her. And had Roskam focused more fully on these characters’ troubled love, the narrative might not have gotten stuck in the mud of confusing and unnecessary side plots. There’s one of Bezne (Kerem Can), who’s involved in a pricey development project with Bibi’s father and who eventually blackmails Bibi by telling her that Gigi will need protection for cooperating with the cops. And then there’s a whole thread involving the cops, a complete missed opportunity for providing some of that context, as Bibi seems highly protected by the police and Gigi seems targeted. Any exploration of class and privilege would have been helpful, as would dignifying Bibi with interiority and backstory.
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But I promised you that dog metaphor that wraps a messy bow around Gigi’s story and also ties directly to a short, unclear monologue about his father and the kinds of dogs that are “allowed to bite” and those that are not. I’ve yet to figure out exactly what it means or how it even relates to the story, or what kind of dog we’re supposed to aspire to be ourselves, but it’s not surprising that a film titled Racer and the Jailbird could have a problem with mixed metaphors.